Take 5 with Jessica Baldwin

Preserving Wilmington’s historical buildings

Take 5

Wilmington may be well-known for its beaches, but it also has eight nationally registered historic districts that help draw visitors and drive the city’s economic growth. As Wilmington’s senior historic preservation planner, JESSICA BALDWIN is committed to ensuring the city’s historic built environment is maintained as a valuable cultural and economic asset.

Wilmington’s historic charm anchors the city with a sense of place, Baldwin notes. “Historic preservation connects a community to the present and the future,” Baldwin explains. “People learn what it was like to live in different eras, and it helps shape future generations.”

The sense of place offered by the city’s historic architecture, particularly in downtown Wilmington, also helps to make the area desirable for both visitors and local investment, she notes. “Without the preservation of the buildings downtown along the water and Front Street, the city couldn’t advertise downtown,” Baldwin says. “The buildings are an economic tool that drives tourism and has the potential to drive building trade. It can create jobs and strengthen communities by not displacing homes.”

Baldwin brings extensive experience in both architecture and preservation to her position. She was a senior designer for an architecture firm in New York City and served as a preservationist for the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. She moved to the Port City in 2022 to become Wilmington’s preservation planner, and she was promoted to senior historic preservation planner this year.

In her time with the city, Baldwin has taken on major initiatives. One is making the Wilmington Design Standards for Historic Districts and Landmarks, which state what property owners in locally designated historic districts can do when making exterior updates or repairs, more objective and user-friendly.

“If the standards are easy to follow, it’s more likely that building owners will use them,” Baldwin says. “… We hope the new standards will give building owners some options and flexibility with material, which may make repairs a little more affordable.”

Baldwin is also working to ensure Wilmington’s historic landmarks are inclusive. She collaborated with the Commission on African-American History to make the home of Dr. Hubert Eaton, physician and civil rights activist, a designated landmark. With her assistance, Giblem Lodge, the second oldest Black Masonic temple in North Carolina, also recently received local historic designation.

Additional sites connected with Wilmington’s African American history, including the Gregory Congregational Church and Pine Forest Cemetery, could be considered for recognition in the future, according to Baldwin.

To further enhance the inclusiveness of Wilmington’s historic landmarks, Baldwin plans to contact local women’s organizations and the Native American and Hispanic communities and learn about their historic contributions to the area.

“I believe it’s important that everyone’s story is told,” Baldwin says. “I want to help see that change.”

Baldwin’s passion for architecture and preservation is her way of making a difference now and for generations to come.

“I like to tell stories from the past that will continue past my time,” she says. “I find that historic preservation allows me to be a part of the future of the community, whether in spaces or in the larger social scale.”

Take 5 with Jessica Baldwin

What drew you here from NYC? “I grew up in Columbus County, so Wilmington felt familiar. I have family nearby, and it was an opportunity to learn new skills and develop my career in a more well-rounded way. Plus, Southeastern North Carolina is a beautiful place, hot but beautiful.” What inspires you to work in the field of historic preservation? “I knew I wanted to be an architect since I was a kid, but after school I quickly learned architecture school and the practice of architecture are very different. I had also always been drawn to the history of our built environment, how cities are constructed, how architectural styles changed, and how the movement of people effects how buildings, streets, and cities look and function. … The thing that inspires me the most is how much historic buildings and spaces really impact people’s daily lives even when they are unaware and how the spaces I protect today are saved for generations beyond me.” Current major projects or initiatives you’re working on? “Currently I am working with consultants to establish some more objective and easy to follow Design Standards. A personal goal for myself is to see that an inclusive story of the history of Wilmington was being represented through formal processes like landmarks and historic reports.” What’s something that people would be surprised about what you do? “I think the biggest surprise would have to be that historic preservation is consistently seen as a burden, and while it can prevent the use of lower cost materials and make some projects last longer, it is a really an economic development tool. It protects sites of significance that give communities a sense of place, making residents happier and inviting visitors to see how unique a place can be.” Historical building that’s a personal favorite to you, either here or elsewhere? “The former Whitney Museum in NYC is one of my favorite buildings I have ever experienced. Designed by Marcel Breuer, it’s a beautiful Brutalist structure designed with the sheer intention to celebrate American Art.”

To view more of photographer Terah Hoobler’s work, go to terahhoobler.com.

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Categories: Culture